АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Anna Shliakhova
13 May 2022
Alla Kopylovska is a journalist from Chernihiv. She thought the war is an absurdity in the 21th century. But, on the 24th of February it became a reality. Her family survived hunger and cold for almost a month. Meanwhile, russian missiles turned her city into ruins. People she knows died. The things they valued before became minor.
The banging woke us up. My husband read the news and said: “That’s it, the war has begun”. I hadn’t believed it would be a war until I heart how they were bombing our military bases. In a few seconds we found ourselves in another world: scary and hostile. This feeling is still with me.
I thought it would be an exacerbation in the east, where all fighting would take place. But that they could come from the north from Belarus made no sense to me. I saw no reasons at all. What’s for? Maybe we got accustomed to democratic changes over 30 years, and now we’re unaccustomed to barbarism.
I tried to realize what was going on. There was scant information, but we have friends almost all over the Chernihiv region. We called our friends who live on the border with Belarus. We found out about columns of vehicles and how quickly they moved. We realized that troubles were to come.
First, we decided to store some food. Carelessly, we didn’t fill the car. It was our mistake. We took care about food and medicine, but not about our mobility. Queues instantly grew near stores and fuel stations and were going along streets. There were fighting near us the next day.
We lived on the outskirt of the city. So we were almost the first who suffered. On the 25th of February a shell hit our house. The entrance was affected by the explosion. The windows blew out, the walls were broken, the construction shifted, it started to burn. All the things that were on the balconies either burned down, or flew outside. People picked them up and threw them in the trash. Soon a shell hit the yard from the other side and left a rather big crater. The walls of the house cracked.
Fortunately, no one was at home at that moment. We were at work, our girls went to get some information about studying. People called me and said that we had no place to come back.
I was shocked. We had to decide where to go. We choose to go to our country house. It’s a small house near Chernihiv unsuitable for living in winter. But that was the only option.
We held out there for 2 weeks. We had almost no food. The water was available until we had power. When artillery began again, we ran to the first floor where a small cellar is. Our children and my mom were hiding there. We stayed on the first floor in case they needed help to get out of it.
In the country I first saw how low cruise missile flew. It hit afterwards somewhere in the center of the city. I caught myself thinking not about where to hide, but instead: “O, my God, it’s so low and I have nothing to knock it down!”
By the way, the water we store was high in iron, so we had to do three-stage purification. I had a very good teacher of chemistry in school, thanks to her I recall what ferrous iron is and how oxides are to be made. I let water settle for a day, then dissolved potassium permanganate in it and waited until sediment fell out, then passed it through a filter with charcoal. Only after we could boil it and drink. But we ran out of water and were forced to go back to Chernihiv under shelling.
We couldn’t go back to our home, so we asked to live in an office. We stayed there for a little more than a fortnight, sleeping on the floor.
It was the office in the basement of a residential building. We had water for 2 days and stocked up on it in all possible ways. We collected all the trash cans in the office, put trash bags in them and filled them with water.
My husband guessed to pick up from our country house a portable gas stove, but forgot to take spare gas cylinders. We cooked once a day until we had gas. I learned how to cook pasta in 2 minutes. I knew exactly how much water is needed so that the pasta fully absorbs it. Water boiled and then pasta infused.
When we wanted some tea, we could go to the yard and ask our neighbors from a high-rise building. They had made a brazier and once a day boiled a bucket of water.
In order to get water, we had to go to an open terrain. We moved by bounds to a private house area. God, bless that man! He had a solar panel installed on the roof of his house that powered a water pump. He put a hose over his fence and everyone could get water. People offered him money, but he refused to take it. The main thing was to wait for our turn and come back alive with 5 liters of water.
It was freezing cold outside. In order not to freeze we didn’t take our clothes off while going to sleep. There was electricity when we moved into the office, so we could boil some water. When I took off my pantyhose, I thought I would take it with my skin. Because I wore the pantyhose, hose, one more hose, 2 old T-shirts that we found in the country house, and sweaters: one that I had worn 30 years ago, one that my child had worn last year, and finally that one I left my home in. The jacket, the hat and the hood on the top of it. Then I was ready to fight!
There was no electricity, but I made an oil lamp from a “Pepsi” bin. We had lampada oil, it doesn’t smoke and burns not as fast as candles. So it lasted long.
It was worse with smartphones. While a phone keeps searching for a signal, it drains the battery. And there was no signal. We got on the highest floors trying to find a signal. Also, there are many parks in the city with solar bench charging stations. We recharged our phones there when it was quiet.
We also had an old receiver. We put batteries and folium in it, also we added folium to the antenna to make it work better, and tried to find out the news. It announced the air-raid warnings, but it made no sense to run somewhere. We had only 10 minutes. If one didn’t make it to a shelter, they could listen where it banged on the 11th minute. In 2-3 weeks we all became experts: we knew where our army was, if it our or enemy shelling, the banging of mines, the whistling of bombs, the humming of Grad systems.
There was a 16-store building near our office. We saw fire flares in its windows. The outskirts were on fire. What an eerie sight! Novoselivka, Bobrovytsia, Oleksandrivka – all those villages near Chernihiv were almost razed to the ground.
As soon as dusk came, the sky became red. It was our lightning. In the morning the sky was gray with smoke and reeks of burns. There wasn’t a single day without fires.
Nobody expected such a disaster in our small russian-speaking city. We speak Russian, understand Belarusian, know Ukrainian. Later I met people who managed to evacuate. They told me, the occupants were surprised: “Why do you fuck us off with our own language? We came to save you”.
The mayor says about 70% of the city was damaged. Some districts survived, others were razed to the ground. It’s a horror: no roads. no buildings, no people.
The bad thing is that a lot of missiles came to historical sites. Chernihiv has some gems on almost every street. You can stop anyone on the street, and they tell you something interesting about the city: when it was built, what sights it has and so on. And those wooden laces on houses, all those carvings. It was our visit card. Everyone wants to create something like this for his house. A man could walk, observe, and even write a book about it.
There was a Regional Youth Center in the center of our city. The City Council was nearby. I think they aimed to destroy the last, but hit the Youth Center instead. The Hotel “Ukraine” also was damaged.
When we got out of the city, we passed all this by and it was like parallel reality or even worse! Watching horror movie, one can always turn it off. One can always pause a video game or have another life there. And then we realized that it happens against our will and we could do nothing about that. Every decision could be the last. It wore out the most. Sometimes I was jealous of the military. If not for children’s sake with such a character I would at least go to the territorial defense. There is nothing worse than helplessness.
During almost 50 years of my life, I have had no idea how desperately I can hate. The profession of a journalist requires understanding other people point of view, asking for experts’ opinions about the issue in question and looking for a solution. It should be constructive, balanced and effective. Here I can see a huge problem, but can’t understand people doing it. I see no point in it.
My mother was the first to talk about the evacuation. I asked her to be patient. Then my daughter experienced despair: just on the other side of the street russian troops fired on people standing in queue for bread. The wreckage hit his friend’s father. 14 people died. And almost for a month we were freezing and starving and started to get sick. I felt like soon I wouldn’t be able to cope. Neither moral nor physical strength would I have.
We left with a big column of buses. At every checkpoint our boys told us where we should go. We couldn’t stop for a minute! If we saw a sign “Mines”, we knew it was put by our forces. The results of “their” work we saw everywhere: on the roadside were cars destroyed by mines. Our soldiers warned us that sounds are not always heard, but if we saw the ground raised up near the car, they must be shooting at us.
Usually, the road to Kiev takes 2 hours, but we drove more than 7 hours. Now I realize that staying in Chernihiv could be less risky than leaving. If back then I knew the statistics about people who were burned, injured, and blown up by mines, if I knew about shooting, I wouldn’t dare to leave. I just wouldn’t have the strength to do it.
Now we’re in Cherkasy. It’s just another world. I was shocked when we first saw full shelves at a store. We couldn’t get enough bread for a fortnight!
The 3 things surprised me in Cherkasy. First, while we were moving around the city I noticed every unfinished or old building guessing if it could be a shell or a fire. Second, I noticed a loaf of bread near trash bins and I felt an urge to pick it up. Third, locals ignore the air-raid signals. I adapted over time…
The best gift after the victory is to keep going. The only thing I want is to work and live at home, even at damaged home. I want to live in my country. I want to demine and clean it. But I won’t forget anything. Speaking with my children, I see that at least 3 generations will hate them!
I can recall a 100-year-old woman in a queue. She told us it hadn’t been such an horror those days. “Still, I don’t remember much, but I recall how we lived after my father died. It wasn’t so scary”.
I also saw a senior man who was sitting on the stairs in a moment of quiet, basking in the sun. We talked a little. It turned out that day when rushists fired on people standing in queue, his wife had to go there. He was late. He heard the explosion, people were running and shouting, and he was looking for her. He didn’t find her and went home. She came to meet him from the yard. The man confessed: “I had never loved her so much as at that moment, when I saw she was alive!”
I know what giving birth to a child is. I don’t want our children to be taken away from us. I talked to people: this enemy’s hatred keeps most of us going. Only one of my friends told me that he had had trust to russia. He thought people are the same. But it’s an horde. They are from the age of predators and looters; they know no kindness and moral laws. They understand only” physical resistance.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Anna Shliakhova